Chapter 25:

The Ebb Tide VI - "Easy Does It"

Destiny Marine

Reed almost looked peaceful as she died. Isaac looked at her sadly while Babs stifled a sniffle.

But then Reed frowned. "Can one of you sing? My death needs a soundtrack."

For a girl who was currently dying, she showed no signs of apprehension. She even let out a groan as Babs finished her work and tightened the last of the bandages.

"Today's your lucky day," Babs told her. "We pulled you back from the verge of death."

Reed eyed the remnants of her left arm and hand. "How lucky indeed."

Once again, Isaac wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. After losing Greg and Kassandra, he thought he was about to lose another close friend. He didn't realize the path he chose would continue to be so full of tragedy. Fortunately, seeing Reed crack dry jokes and hearing Babs' words brought him a sense of relief. But he wanted to confirm it. "She's not going to die?"

Babs nodded. "Remember from classes? Due to opening the dantian and having some Rddhi flowing through you, cultivators are quite resilient. The only way to instantly kill one is to destroy the heart, brain, or soul, or any of the connections between them. That's why Panama died from getting his throat slit open. But Reed was only mostly dead, and we got to her before she became fully dead. If we weren't here, then she really would've died."

Isaac sighed in gratitude. Reed just frowned. "And to think, I was ready, too. Now I gotta go keep living and shit."

"You're not quite out of the woods just yet," Babs reminded her. "Another injury and you're toast. And with wounds like this, you need to start cultivating right now. Otherwise your body won't heal properly and you'll lose even more of it."

Reed gave a reluctant nod. “Yeah, yeah. If I cultivate, my injuries will gradually heal and I’ll get my liver and fingers back. The scars are gonna remain though, both physically and mentally. I expect a lot of free sandwiches from you guys after this.”

Isaac sighed in relief - she was going to be okay. He glanced at Babs, who had a similar look on her face. But now that Reed was alright, they still had the issue of making it out of this death trap. The water continued to rise, threatening to overtake their crate in the next few moments. After that, only the catwalks would remain above water, and not for long.

“Let’s head to the control panel,” Reed ordered. Isaac scooped her up bridal style, trying to keep her steady so the bandages wouldn’t tear away. While Babs could glide herself through the path of crates, Isaac had to leap to and fro to make it to the other catwalk. He grimaced - by the time had gotten close, he was landing on crates where the water came up to his ankles. Babs had already reached the catwalk; Isaac handed Reed over to her, then climbed over the railing alongside her.

The panel was easy enough to find, and right next to it was the door that led further into the ship, presumably towards another cargo hold. “Leave the door we came through closed,” Reed ordered. “And once we head through this next door, close it after us. We need to keep the water in here so we don’t flood the rest of the ship.”

Isaac looked uneasily at the water, which started to splash over the side of the catwalk. “With all this water, isn’t the ship going to sink anyway?”

“It’s called a compartment,” Reed explained as Babs handed her back to Isaac and looked through the control panel. “Ships have multiple watertight compartments, so even if one floods, the ship still stays afloat.”

As if to signal she was correct, Babs found the right button. The door next to them whizzed and groaned and then opened under its own power, revealing another hallway. The trio stepped through it right as the water overtook the catwalk. Before the water could stream through the open door, Isaac gripped it tightly and closed it shut. He spun the locking mechanism until he heard a satisfying clicking sound signifying that the compartment had become watertight again. He sighed in relief as Babs set Reed down against a metal wall.

Pipes and valves lined the walls of the hallway; it took a turn halfway down, and Isaac suspected that would lead further into the ship and therefore, Jackson. After seeing the capabilities of Panama, Isaac tried to steel himself for the upcoming fight, but a glance at Reed reminded him things could go awry, even in a victory.

“Did we trap ourselves down here?” Isaac wondered aloud, deciding to take his thoughts in a different direction. “We can’t go back through that compartment.”

“I assume Panama wouldn’t just trap Jackson down here to die,” Reed supposed. “There has to be another way out.” She spat out the nub of her finished cigarette and grabbed another, this one labeled EASY DOES IT. After a long drag, she spoke. “Alright, here’s the plan. I’m gonna stay here for now and cultivate so I go from being mostly dead to slightly alive. It pains me to say it, but you two should go on ahead without me. I’d only slow you down. If Jackson’s down here, he’s likely destroying evidence we came here looking for. It might be tough, but if you can, take him alive so we can interrogate him.”

Isaac glanced down at his fist. The line between life and death seemed to get thinner and thinner the longer he went on. Yet the only way out of here would be to defeat Jackson. He set aside his worries and fears.

“Alright,” he said with a nod. “We’ll try to take him alive.”

Babs patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry about us, Reed.”

Reed cracked a pained grin, making blood slightly trickle from the corner of her mouth. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” As she maneuvered the cigarette to wipe the blood away, Isaac and Babs left her, their footsteps echoing on the metal floor. Similar to before, the sudden appearance of silence seemed just as off-putting as the constant chaos of battle. All they heard were their own footsteps and the occasional hiss of valves. What they didn’t hear was a Rddhi activation - either Jackson had already activated his power or was waiting for them to arrive.

The other possibility was that he wasn’t even down there in the first place, but that possibility was rendered null when they arrived at the end of the hallway. This led them to a catwalk overlooking another cargo hold - except this one only had a catwalk on just one side. The hold was a lot smaller, too - probably only half the size of the earlier hold. In addition to the towers of crates, this hold also featured metal barrels and long containers the size of cars. Flourescent lights lined the ceilings in addition to the usual light fixtures on the walls, but Isaac's attention was quickly drawn towards the figure in the center of the hold.

A man in a conical straw hat worked in front of a big pile of crates. Empty cans of gasoline were scattered around him; he tossed a match onto the pile and the whole thing went up in flames, the sudden whoosh of fire sending a strong breeze at the approaching Isaac and Babs. The man looked up in satisfaction at the inferno, then back at the newcomers as they descended down to the floor of the hold. Following Pamana’s lead, he tossed away his hat as they arrived, revealing dark stubble and bored eyes. He wore a brown bomber jacket over military fatigues.

“Jackson,” Isaac said aloud.

The last of their targets tilted his head in amusement. “My reputation precedes me. I had no idea I was this famous. I graduated from bootcamp among the lowest in my class. And yet, here I am, rich as a king, while a lot of them are dead on unnamed battlefields.”

“Keep talking, and you’ll join them,” Babs warned, her eyes narrowed. Judging from other flaming piles of crates, Jackson had been in the middle of destroying the hold’s cargo as the two arrived.

Flames flickered behind him. “I take it that Panama’s dead?”

Isaac gave him a slow nod. Jackson let out a sigh and wiped his face. “That damned fool. He took this far too seriously. Always talking about his dream. Load of good that did him in the end.” He analyzed the two cultivators, looking at the way they held their heads high and their fists clenched. “You two are dreamers too, huh? You lose a loved one? You want to change this country?”

Energy flared from Babs, so Isaac stepped in front of her. “Your word games won't work on us." Before the fight with Panama, it might've. The similarities between Panama and Isaac's stories were too much to ignore. But Isaac was here, and he didn't want to die, and he didn't want see Babs hurt, either. He put aside his question of justice for another time; right now, he fought for himself and the person next to him.

Jackson sighed and sat on a crate. “You two and Panama both. Always so quick to fight. Why? How could you believe in something so seriously that you get all worked up over it? That you wake up and constantly have it on your mind?”

“Oh yeah?” Isaac asked. “If you don’t have a dream, then why are you here?” In his head, Isaac analyzed attack patterns. He couldn’t tell if Jackson had already activated his powers or not, so he needed to proceed carefully. Perhaps he could even get in his opponent’s head first.

“Why am I here?” Jackson wondered aloud. A nearby flaming crate cracked and disintegrated from the flames. He gave a nonchalant shrug. “It pays well.”

After all the passion and energy from Panama, his friend’s reason seemed so minor. And compared to everything Isaac had been through as well, it seemed so disappointing. “You do this just for money?”

Jackson shifted on his crate. “The Restorationists can scheme and they can plan. But to do any of it, they need money. They need people like me - people who don’t ask questions, people who might not care about their vision but will carry out their goals because they pay well. I work for the Restorationists. After I introduced Panama to them, he became a Restorationist. You see the difference?”

Energy exploded from behind Isaac. Babs stepped back up next to him. “The difference between man and animals is that we can reason. We have purpose! You’re no better than a dog.”

Jackson grinned and raised his arms. “Sure, I may be a dog. But you know what? All I want is a beer in one hand and a titty in the other. Thanks to this job, I can get my wants every day. But you two with all your big dreams…you’ll never get what you want. You’ll be fighting your battles forever - always so close, yet so far from the ideal world pictured in your minds. And all the while, I’ll be happy.”

Based on the way Babs grinded her teeth next to him, Isaac understood the time for talking was over. And it would be better to finish now before Jackson got into his head. “Come quietly. Last chance.”

Somewhere, a valve hissed. Flames flickered across burning crates. The light fixtures looked silently down at them. Jackson reached into his pocket and readied himself. “You know, you’re so worked up that you forgot the most important thing. The Rddhi doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Humanity has invented thousands of ways to kill each other, some far more simpler than psychic powers.”

A danger sense flashed through Isaac. Babs realized it at the same time and the two dove out of the way in unison as Jackson fired the machine pistol hidden inside his jacket. The bullets ricocheted around the cargo hold, so Isaac hid himself behind a pile of crates spared from the burning.

Once the ricochets died down, he intended to move, but they never did. Instead, they seemed to just pick up in intensity. The metallic banging sound threatened to suffocate Isaac as it continued. As he peered around his crate, a nearby pile sparked from the ricochets and suddenly ignited. One by one, the pile of crates ignited, adding huge plumes of smoke that ensconced the whole area.

Isaac dove out of the way as his pile suffered a similar fate. As the fire and flames flickered, as smoke spewed all around him, as the sound threatened to overwhelm his ear drums, Isaac realized he had lost sight of not just Babs, but Jackson as well.

He poured energy into his fists, using the red glow to light his way. Despite the odds and circumstances, Isaac had no intention of backing down.